“Choose Jewish” Jewish Education in France Gets a Boost

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By: Dave Gordon

France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, behind Israel and the United States. But the number of French Jews has been rapidly dwindling over the past six years. And it does not look like things are getting any better.

Factors contributing to the French Jews flight include escalating anti-Semitism, terrorism, murders targeted against
Jews, as well as the influx of religious extremist refugees.

According to Agence France Press more than 40,000 of the 400,000 French Jews have emigrated since 2001. The Institute of Jewish Policy Research says the exodus is “unprecedented.”

This has caused a crisis for the Jewish school system as classroom sizes steadily dwindle. Over the last six years in some schools twenty percent of students have left; other schools have significantly larger losses, reports indicate.

This is causing a financial domino effect that has left students, parents, schools, and the entire Jewish educational system in a scramble to ensure that the community’s educational institutions survive.

Because of decreased enrollment, Jewish schools are at risk for losing government funding for secular studies, which require a minimum of 20 students per class. In order for schools to stay open, they cannot sustain further losses in enrolment.

While some schools have managed to maintain their class sizes, for other schools it has become virtually impossible.

A contributing factor to the crisis is the loss of independent funding. Those Jews who have remained in France may not have the financial means to leave the country, and they are more in need of tuition subsidies. They are also in less of a position to offer voluntary donations to their children’s schools.

Elliott Shalom, a member of the executive board of Ozar Hatorah International says of the
situation, “It’s a true crisis, with anti-Semitism, fear, and migration.” In response to the crisis, the leadership of Ozar Hatorah International recently launched a major campaign called “Choose Jewish,” aimed at encouraging Jewish parents to enroll their children in Jewish schools.

Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi David Ozeri, and Rabbi Malkiel Kotler heard about the urgent need to bolster Jewish educational institutions in France. They seized the opportunity to help save thousands of Jewish children from assimilation, and joined Ozar Hatorah International to raise funds to help this noble cause. The rabbis lobbied wealthy community members and raised $800,000.00 in a single day!

It is widely acknowledged that if a Jewish student is removed from public school and is placed in a Jewish school the risk of intermarriage decreases dramatically.

Those involved in the efforts to move Jewish students from secular to Jewish schools discovered that many Jewish students actually wanted to leave their secular schools, but had stayed for financial reasons.

“The kids in public schools are less happy than they have ever been. The kids do not announce they are Jewish,” notes Sam Sutton, board member of Ozar Hatorah. “The Jewish students in public school do not feel as safe. And they are looking at the yeshivas as an opportunity.”

Ozar Hatorah was founded at the end of World War II by three Syrian businessmen, Isaac Shalom, Joseph Shamah, and Ezra Teubal. Their aim was to set up much-needed Orthodox Jewish educational institutions in the Middle East. At its peak, more than forty schools had been set up in a number of countries.

A new French financial initiative “ReJEWvenate” is aimed at enabling French Jewish families to educate their children in Jewish schools by providing tuition funding, financial support for catch-up tutoring or remedial classes, transportation costs, and infrastructure subsidy.

So far, efforts have culminated in some 650 children transferring from public schools to yeshivas. The first donations will be earmarked to subsidize tuitions of students who cannot afford tuition.

Additionally, France’s Jewish community has committed to provide local assistance from Fonds Social Juif, which offers matching scholarships of $1,400 per child.

“The Syrian community is a world leader again,” Sutton adds enthusiastically. “Isaac Shalom did it the first time, and look at what’s going on now.”

The executive director of Ozar Hatorah, Rabbi Yoseph Milstein, summed up the successes. “There is a sense of unity amongst the community, all encouraging Jewish students to leave public school,” he notes.

“We hope that these kids will explain to their cousins and friends how wonderful it is to celebrate Judaism. We hope it will have a snowball effect, and hope that next year our enrolment will grow and grow. And we hope that these kids will be inspired to bring more of their Jewish heritage into their lives, to celebrate Shabbat, observe mitzvot, and take much pride in being Jewish.”